Compassion Fatigue – What is it?
Nurses Helping Elderly

Compassion Fatigue – What is it?

According to The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing OJIN (January 2011) compassion fatigue is “…a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress.”

It is in essence a form of burn out that specifically affects those within a care-giving role. It can impact nurses working in any speciality and any environment from hospitals, care homes and community settings. At its most insidious, it means that care-givers experience the pain of patients and their families in the process of providing support. Most nurses will find themselves deeply affected by a particular patient or patients during their nursing career. So how do you know if you have reached the stage of Compassion Fatigue?

The American Institute of Stress has identified some commonalities in the condition:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Reduced sense of personal accomplishment or meaning in work
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Decreased interactions with others – isolation
  • Depersonalisation – symptoms disconnected from real causes)
  • Physical exhaustion

This is by no means an exhaustive list as we may all be physically exhausted from a child waking us at 5am and there are other symptoms common to Compassion Fatigue that may be worth looking for:

  • Excessive blaming/complaining
  • Substance abuse
  • Poor Personal Hygiene
  • Compulsive behaviour – overspending; overeating, gambling
  • Chronic physical ailments – recurrent colds, gastro-intestinal issues
  • In denial

Compassion Fatigue can be affected by an overload of nursing care practice – too many patients, too little time, and no support. But often it is influenced by personal circumstances such as caring for young children and/or older parents, divorce or it could be organisational working conditions such as paperwork demands; new systems; repeated changes by new management/best practice/mergers


So how do you deal with Compassion Fatigue if you have it – or are simply worried that the pressures of job are becoming too much and making you resent the job you once took such pride in?

One of the things that many nurses – and medical professionals in general – are not very good at. Take care of yourself! Improves self-care is the cornerstone to maintaining your own mental and physical health. My Mother in law always used to tell that your first duty of care is to yourself – how can you be any good to anyone else if you are unable to function?

DO NOT feel guilty for taking the time out to exercise, meditate or have a massage. Whatever you can do and afford that gives you a break from work. At our office I encourage staff to go for a midday walk or afternoon stroll as it gives a little bit of time out to get away from the desk and re-focus on the job we have to do.

Check your balance. We hear a great deal about work/life balance so take stock of your work Vs non-work interests – does this area need some adjustment?

Are you in the position of constantly care-giving or do you feel unable to give care once you leave work?

Whatever the circumstances it is important to address them as they can become deeper issues and lead to depression and anxiety.

That is not to say that every nurse feels like this all the time or that we don’t all have periods of time where the stresses of our everyday lives feel like too much. But given that nurses play such a crucial role in our physical and emotional well-being – it is vital to know that yours is necessary too!

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